Good Beer Hunting

Sightlines — Rebranding the Obvious? — BrewDog to launch LIVE Beer concept in the UK

This week, one of the UK’s largest and Europe’s fastest growing craft breweries, BrewDog, launched a new draft concept known as “LIVE Beer.” The concept, designed by BrewDog co-founder Martin Dickie, involves re-fermenting the brewery’s Dead Pony Club Pale Ale in Keykegs, using only the naturally occurring yeast in the finished beer. The resulting beer has a much lower level of carbonation than a typical keg, around 1.3 volumes. It’s then dispensed via a specially designed draught system at a slightly warmer temperature of 9.5°c (49.1°f). In a statement to the press, BrewDog owner and founder James Watt described it as “real ale for modernists.” It’s available to try now in all of the Scottish brewery’s 27 UK locations.

The majority of UK drinkers, myself included, might struggle to see the point of this endeavor. To most who heard online, the idea sounds like a rebranding of existing keg conditioning methods that are widely used.

After I was critical of this new concept on Twitter, Watt contacted me to explain in greater deal what makes LIVE beer different to traditional cask beer. “LIVE beer is very different from how other brewers condition in Keykeg,” Watt said. “Standard Keykeg conditioning gives a result akin to standard keg beer. LIVE beer, using our patented method, gives a result akin to an evolution of cask beer.”

In his view, there are two key points of difference, and those are that the beer is conditioned to a lower level of CO2 pressure than usual, and that it’s served at a warmer temperature. However, without any evidence of technical difference, which has not been presented despite our request, or details from the patent he claims he filed (we can find no evidence of it), any brewer can currently achieve this with existing methods of yeast management—and, well, the temperature of the keg. While BrewDog hasn't been forthcoming with details, they might yet have some secret they're holding on to.  

However, with both craft beer and cask ale sales on the rise, the bigger question is why would BrewDog seek to find this middle ground between them? BrewDog ceased to produce beer in cask in 2010. In the following year, it had a now-infamous spat with UK beer consumer group CAMRA (which we mentioned in our article on them last year), when they claimed that the organization had banned them from its annual Great British Beer Festival. It’s still unclear to this day what really happened between the opposing parties.

Regardless of the technical or branding achievements at play, the value to the consumer is in the tasting, so I headed down to a local BrewDog bar to try a pint. The pour had a much tighter carbonation that reminded me of Tankovna Pilsner Urquell, even down to the handled pint-mug the beer was served in. To achieve this the beer was poured through a sparkler style tap and I immediately found that this reduced the intensity of the beers aroma. To taste it was smoother, with a fuller mouthfeel than the usual keg pour. But it was neither cask nor keg and I found myself perplexed. Who exactly is this beer aimed at?

BrewDog have shunned Real Ale and CAMRA for half a decade, and as a brewery they never apologize or go back on their word. They’ve also spent the years since abandoning cask beer enthusing about the qualities of American style dispense, claiming it boosts flavour and aroma in the hop forward, West Coast style beers it produces. Which I have always tended to agreed with. 

So this has led me to the conclusion that through its bars, BrewDog is using its UK customers, including its 42,000 strong group of shareholders acquired through its crowdfunding scheme “Equity for Punks”, as a pilot audience. BrewDog is not far from commissioning its new U.S. brewery in Columbus, Ohio and soon they will have a lot of draught beer to sell to the U.S. market, one that is much more crowded than here in the UK. So what better way of winning taps than providing a draft offering with a British twist. Something that’s not quite keg, and not quite cask but something that’s still different. It might just be different enough to win custom from a brand new audience in the U.S.

BrewDog claim they're offering the technology to fellow craft breweries free of charge. Whether any of them choose to take them up on it remains to be seen. 

— Matthew Curtis